At the time, Bonnie Freeman and Trish Van Katwyk were too busy trying not to drown to appreciate the symbolism.
The pair were paddling the Grand River alongside Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth as part of a Two Row on the Grand canoeing expedition in 2016.
“I had never paddled before and the thing I was most afraid of was capsizing,” said Freeman, a social work professor at McMaster University.
As their canoe approached some rapids near the Lorne Bridge in Brantford, the paddlers started to panic.
“We were kind of struggling. Not in sync with each other,” Freeman said. “We see people nicely go through, and then it’s our turn.”
Sitting at the head of the canoe, Van Katwyk started to steer, a responsibility best left to the paddler at the back.
“I was trying to be helpful but I overstepped my role,” said Van Katwyk, who teaches social work at the University of Waterloo.
“It was really Bonnie who was going to steer us through the current, and then I interfered.”
In no time, the two professors were in the drink.
“All of a sudden the canoe turns and capsizes, and we’re floundering,” Freeman said.
She frantically grabbed for the canoe and held onto the nearest rock.
“So that’s what I was doing, thinking I’m drowning,” Freeman said.
The two friends propped each other up, watching helplessly as Van Katwyk’s hat floated down the river.
“We finally get our bearings and stand up, and the water was to my knees,” Freeman said with a laugh.
This not-so-harrowing incident had a deeper meaning for the two friends. By coming to each other’s aid, Freeman, who is Haudenosaunee, and Van Katwyk, whose ancestry is Dutch, lived out the Two Row Wampum, a treaty their ancestors made to set out how the two nations would peacefully coexist.
“The Two Row Wampum looks at how Haudenosaunee and non-Indigenous people come together harmoniously upon this land and upon the waters with peace, friendship and respect,” Freeman explained.
The treaty is personified by a belt made of white and purple wampum shells. The purple shells run horizontally in two parallel rows, representing two boats containing the cultures and laws of each nation.
The boats are close enough to help each other if needed, but not so close as to interfere and impose their way of life on the other.
After graduating together from Wilfrid Laurier University’s PhD program, Van Katwyk and Freeman decided to focus their academic work on studying how living the Two Row Wampum principles could foster relationships and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.
That work has taken traditional forms like scholarly articles and research projects, but the duo also takes part in paddle trips like last month’s Two Row on the Grand Youth Engagement Camp at Chiefswood Park in Ohsweken.
“Usually people think reconciliation is this formality, you know? A structured, formal (process),” Freeman said.
“Reconciliation is about the daily living. It’s not this big capital R with an agenda set forward that can’t really be accomplished. It needs to be these community-based things.”
Van Katwyk witnessed “small-r reconciliation” in campers doing the dishes together and helping pull their canoes out of the water.
“That co-operative spirit really has an impact, and I think it’s because colonization is a process of unco-operating us,” she said.
The self-proclaimed “paddle sisters” hope their own friendship can serve as a model of reconciliation.
“It’s not that we never help each other out. We’re constantly helping each other out. It’s about finding that place of balance,” Van Katwyk said.
The relationship is rooted in conversations that started back in their school days, with Freeman — the only Indigenous student in the social work PhD program — answering her classmates’ questions about Haudenosaunee culture.
Van Katwyk said seeing Freeman come to class “distressed” over the ongoing standoff at a housing development in Caledonia — the former Douglas Creek Estates, which was occupied by Six Nations land defenders in 2006 — motivated her to seek answers elsewhere.
“It felt wrong for me to ply (Freeman) with all sorts of questions about what was happening,” Van Katwyk said.
“So I went to the newspapers and tried to learn about it so that I could understand this pain that Bonnie was in. And by trying to understand, I also ended up learning a lot.”
As a teacher, Freeman continues to invite questions from students looking to understand the impact of residential schools and other historical traumas on Indigenous communities.
“I try to create a safe space as well as a brave space for my students to feel comfortable to ask those questions and have a discussion,” Freeman said. “It is painful for me, but as an educator I feel it’s important to be open.”
When writing papers together, the two academics try to stick to their strengths while standing by to help if needed.
“Sometimes we stop and go, wait, we’re floundering. We’ve just capsized again. But then we go back,” Van Katwyk said.
That can mean resisting the urge to impose, such as when Van Katwyk tried to steer the canoe instead of navigating.
“Which is really a settler way of doing things — ‘Here, let me do that. I’ve got the better answer,’” she said.
Falling into the river was the reminder they needed to paddle together.
“That was a light bulb moment for us, because after that we became in sync,” Freeman said.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator